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Femme fatale in underage prostitution scandal has France at her feet.
BRUSSELS, Belgium — It's not exactly Pretty Woman, but there is something Hollywood about the story of Zahia Dehar.
"A modern fairy tale," is how the newspaper Liberation described her rags-to-riches journey from childhood in small-town Algeria and the gritty immigrant suburbs around the French capital to star of Parisian haute couture, via a stint as a teenage prostitute.
Dehar was catapulted to French media superstardom as the femme fatale at the center of a scandal that has two of Europe's top soccer players in the dock on charges of paying for underage sex.
"I prefer the word courtesan, rather than call girl," Dehar told TF1 television this month, as she described the career she's ditched since becoming a darling of the artistic and fashion world by launching her own luxury lingerie brand and self-named perfume.
Fame descended on Dehar in 2010 when she was named as the underage girl with whom French soccer stars Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema had allegedly paid for sex. Dehar was 16 and 17 when the alleged encounters took place.
In France, the age of consent is 15 and prostitution is legal for women older than 18, but paying for sex with minors is a crime.
The trial of the two players opened in Paris last week, but was immediately adjourned until January after the judge agreed to a request from Ribery's lawyers for closer study of the law on soliciting for underage prostitution.
Ribery's reputation as a devoted family man and pious convert to Islam has, however, been dented by the allegations that he flew Dehar from Paris to Munich in 2009 as a 26th "birthday present to himself," paying her $900 to join in a sex party that also involved his brother-in-law and another woman.
In defense of the French star — who plays club soccer for Germany's European Champion Bayern Munich — Dehar said she lied about her age by telling him she was 18.
Benzema, who plays for Real Madrid, denies paying $650 for sex with Dehar after they met in a nightclub off the Champs d'Elysees.
Dehar says she was mortified by the sudden notoriety.
"I was devastated,” she told Liberation's Next magazine. “The whole world knew about me for doing that. It really hurt. I cried for six months, I thought I'd never go out again."
But Dehar, who lists Cinderella as her favorite story and Pretty Women among her preferred movies, was soon rescued by a fairy godfather in the form of fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld.
He took her under his wing after seeing a photo spread of her in a Spanish magazine. Lagerfeld hails her as a reincarnation of the 18th-century courtesans who entertained the great and no-so-good of monarchical France.
Soon the French media was comparing the blond, curvaceous Dehar to Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Madonna and Barbie.
Top fashion photographers battled to splash her figure across the covers of glossy magazines. Last year, her lingerie line was launched — a saucy mix of lace, frills and transparent chiffons that was acclaimed by the Paris fashion world.
Lagerfeld called her a new Coco Chanel. Attendance at the catwalk launches of her new collections has become de rigueur for French movie stars, artists and fashion designers. Filmmakers have made her the subject of documentaries and avant-garde shorts. Philosophers and sociologists agonize over her influence on French society.
"When a 13-year-old adolescent tells a teacher that she dreams of becoming an escort girl to earn 20,000 euros [$26,000] a month like Zahia — as one of my students told me recently — what can I answer?" teacher Fatima Ait Bounoua, wrote recently in the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.
"The magazines have made Zahia an icon, in these articles the prostitution of a minor is seen almost a recommended step for poor girls seeking social recognition."
Such concerns have been amplified by the similarities between Dehar's story and that of Karima el Mahroug, aka Ruby Heartstealer, the Moroccan-born nightclub dancer who allegedly animated the bunga-bunga parties of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Both are North African immigrants to Europe from modest backgrounds.
El Mahroug reportedly ran away from home in Morocco before ending up in Italy, where she began working in nightclubs in her mid-teens. Dehar would skip class to hang out in Parisian clubs where she was approached to exchange sex for cash from the age of 15.
Both attracted the attention of rich and famous men — and ended up rich and famous themselves.
Berlusconi paid El Mahroug $5.9 million, according to the court that convicted him of abuse of power and paying for underage sex on Monday.
Dehar shares a 360 square-yard apartment in Paris' chic 16th arrondissement with her shih tzus — Enzo and Miyuki — but has checked into a $29,000-a-night hotel suite while she has some repairs done, the celebrity news site Voici.fr reported.
The extent of her popularity is no less astounding. When Dehar gave a Sunday-night interview on TF1 TV network this month, 4.5 million viewers tuned in, almost double the number who watched President Francois Hollande being interviewed the same evening on another channel.
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The debate about her suitability as a role model may continue, but no one can argue Zahia is living the dream. She's just opened a "sexy patisserie," is drawing up plans for a hotel and writing book for children.
"When I was little in Algeria, I loved putting on makeup, doing my hair," she told the magazine Paris Match. "Today I'm living all the pleasures I wanted as a 6-year-old."